Strength in numbers: Profile of UCF President John Hitt
As president, Hitt set out to lower some of the barriers preventing students from attending UCF. The school added campuses as far away as Clermont and Ocala and became an early advocate for online instruction. Today, 81% of all UCF students take at least one course entirely online.
Most significant, about a decade ago, the school launched a program called “DirectConnect” that guarantees admission to students who complete associate’s of arts degrees, and some associate’s of sciences degrees, at any of six surrounding community colleges. Hitt has consistently resisted pressure over the years to impose additional restrictions on the program, such as minimum GPA requirements. (The state’s 2+2 policy, by contrast, guarantees college students admission to a state university, but not necessarily the university of their choice.)
The program, since emulated by other universities, has had an enormous impact. Roughly 35,000 students have earned undergraduate degrees at UCF through DirectConnect, and transfer students now account for more than half of all UCF admissions. It has also made UCF more diverse, helping to boost the percentage of minorities in the student body from 26% to 44%.
Size, inevitably, poses problems. UCF has a student-to-teacher ratio of 31-to-1, according to the most recent federal data, the highest in Florida and one of the highest in the country. The school has for years struggled to shake the infamous taunt that UCF stands for “U Can’t Finish” because students have difficulty finding slots in the mandatory courses they must complete before graduating.
“Bigness is not better,” says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University. “You want a certain minimal scale. But after that, scale doesn’t do you much good, and the quality of students you’re taking in in order to make (growth) happen is less good, and that’s less appealing to faculty who want to go to the school and teach.”
Some other Florida universities, such as Florida International University in Miami, have followed UCF’s lead. But others have taken a much slower-growth approach than UCF. Since 1992, the year Hitt arrived in Orlando, enrollment at both the University of Florida and Florida State University has grown more slowly than the population of the state as a whole. UCF’s enrollment has grown four times as fast.
“We don’t believe it would serve either the students or the state of Florida for us to just sort of throw open the doors and strain our resources and dilute the quality of what we’re able to provide,” says Joe Glover, the University of Florida’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Hitt and other UCF administrators say the school does not merely churn through kids. The school engages in what Hitt calls “aggressive, intrusive” student advising designed to help struggling students and prevent dropouts. UCF has adopted “adaptive learning” strategies that use computer programs to produce personalized teaching programs for students, and predictive analytics, which help the school spot at-risk students before they run into academic trouble.
One of the statistics that Hitt likes to cite involves students who, like him, are the first in their families to go to college. On average, about 60% of first-time-in-college students graduate within six years. At UCF, that rate is 71%.
“Access is not just about getting in,” says Dale Whittaker, UCF’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “It’s about getting the degree. And it’s not just about getting the degree; it’s getting the mastery that the degree certifies.”